Graham Lebeter: Shared services can help independent high street shops reach the public

Graham Lebeter, a semi retired businessman working on a University of Edinburgh research project on the rejuvenation of high streets, says the future is not going to be easy, but there are proven methods which can aid rejuvenation

IN TRYING to solve a problem, its often very useful to establish what caused the problem.

In the case of the high street, the first erosion of its strength in diversity began in the1950’s when one or two of the larger stores, mainly grocers, started to substantially increase the size of their shops and to widen their range of fresh products to include, bread, meat and fish.

Inevitably this caused a number of small specialist shops to cease trading.

The second damaging development in the 1960’s was the creation of large out of town supermarkets which enabled the customer to have a secure parking spot and find almost every requirement under one roof. Additionally, those new supermarkets created a vast increase in the area of retail space being used; as their original locations continued to operate in the High Street as retail outlets.

Finally, of course, the internet age arrived and many purchases could be made without any need to visit the point of sale or to be involved in the delivery process.  

READ MORE: CS Special Week of Coverage on Scotland's Towns & Places

The traditional high street operator has therefore been under severe and sophisticated competition for over fifty years and has now arrived at a position of great difficulty, if not actual crisis.

Having identified how the problem occurred; what else do we know?

Firstly, there is far too much retail space, and not only in the High Street. However good the solution might be; it will never completely restore the historic need for retail space.

Secondly, purchasing habits have changed in a way that does not help the high street; and any solution has to deal with the customers new habits.

Thirdly, the social and economic mix of many neighbourhoods surrounding a high street has changed dramatically since the day when the high street was created; and a complete reappraisal may be needed as to the type and style of the shops now required.

Fourthly, as we have noted; small shopkeepers have had to deal with very difficult circumstances for a long time, and many of their sons and daughters have no desire to continue the family business; and people with that appetite are not to be found in large numbers.

What then can be done? Is there any hope for the High Street?

The answer is yes; but not in every case, and it won’t ever be easy.

During our research we have visited over one thousand shops in a range of very different high streets and apart from the thoughts already expressed, we learned there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ high street; the variety of shops, the economic circumstances of the neighbourhood, the traffic flows and densities; the availability of car park space and public transport, are all essential components that never combined in the same way; which also implies there is not a single off-the-shelf solution to a diverse problem.

During our research we were constantly told that the applicable rates and rents were far too high and planning should also take into account the trade in which a shop engages; thereby avoiding a situation where a single, prospering high street in Edinburgh has almost one hundred shops; including eighteen restaurants and cafes, eleven hairdressers, nine beauty salons, five bars, five real estate agents and thirteen charity shops. So six activities represent nearly two thirds of the diversity. 

Somehow that does not indicate a high street providing the widest range of options to the available customer base.

READ MORE: Phil Prentice: How to make £50 million for Scotland's town centres go a long way

However, rents, rates and planning are not issues that can be resolved by a small shop keeper and we will focus on practical solutions available to the high street.

From our survey we learned that footfall is the key. If there is no pedestrian traffic through the high street, even the most dynamic retailer is struggling.

The first requirement therefore is to generate footfall; and not just customers with a shopping list in their hand. The High Street needs general foot traffic as well as the shopper with a purchase or purpose in mind. With that support the high street has life and hope.

Our research also indicated that many small retailers do not have a web site, do not have a marketing programme, cannot take orders and payments on-line and do not provide a delivery service. This therefore creates a great disadvantage when in competition with the internet giants who have all of the above in abundance!

READ MORE: Jean Paterson: Bring homes into high streets to bring town centres back to life

Of course the question of cost is critical, and we accept that an individual shop may not be able to cover the processes we suggest. However, technology can work for the small as well as the large. It is quite possible and cost effective for a high street (and its side roads) to utilise a multi user platform which would enable each shop to have its own web site as a part of a communal web site. The web site would be supported by a multi and social media marketing programme that constantly generated reasons for the local community to visit the high street, making it a destination of choice for a range of reasons.

It should also be possible to create a shared or communal delivery service which is now regarded by a significant number of shoppers as being a crucially convenient part of the transaction. 

The technology as described, and the marketing programme, are well proven and can be provided by a Scottish company which delivers those services to large multi-national companies throughout Europe and the USA.

“It should be possible to create a shared or communal delivery service which is now regarded by a significant number of shoppers as being crucially convenient”.

This process has been used very successfully by one small town, located about 12 miles away from a very large city. The small town was gradually becoming simply a dormitory as almost all the residents headed to the big city for their entertainment and shopping.

At a point when the high street was all but defunct; the local mayor, supported by his Council, launched a major marketing initiative. The restaurants and bars put on special events featuring local food and beverage products and offered discounted meals on Mondays and Tuesdays, the clothes shops moved more upmarket, the pharmacy introduced a new range of cosmetic products, supported by the manufacturer, and so on.

It was a slow process, but now the small town has become a destination for the citizens of the large city. Its bars, restaurants and boutiques have created the demand; and the key message is that it was a team effort involving local government and the retailers.

This is not a one-off effort: such a rejuvenation programme has to be continuous; one shot events or web sires without multi media marketing support will fail. It has to be a non stop all angles covered campaign for probably 12 months before the tide can be turned.

There are other positive examples I can give; but hopefully I have done enough to create a feeling of optimism.

Picture courtesy of Tim Dennell

Help keep YOUR media independent